About the Book

Cheit_WitchHunt_comp_r5 The sexual abuse of children in the United States became national news in February 1984 with allegations about the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California. The case, once considered the largest “mass molestation” case in history, ended without a single conviction. Since then, it has become the conventional wisdom that the McMartin case, and hundreds of other cases in that era, were nothing more than witch-hunts. These cases are now seen as compelling evidence that children are “highly suggestible” and that society was in the grips of“hysteria.”

Based on a comprehensive examination of primary sources, The Witch-Hunt Narrative challenges the conventional wisdom about these cases. Ross Cheit uses trial transcripts and related court documents to demonstrate that many of the cases at the core of the witch-hunt narrative involved compelling evidence of abuse. He focuses on three major cases while also surveying dozens more, including some that involved injustice to the defendants. He finds that in many cases the conventional wisdom is significantly overdrawn.

Cheit’s years of research also revealed a history of minimizing and denying abuse, and a surprisingly lenient response to many child molesters. Those trends continue into the present, where there are pockets of overreaction to sexual abuse in a sea of under-reaction.

Cheit concludes with a consideration of recent events, including the Catholic Church cases, the Sandusky case at Penn State, and issues concerning sex offender registration and civil commitment. He argues that progress in social responses to sexual abuse notwithstanding, there are still unjustified attacks on the credibility of children and on child-abuse professions, from forensic interviewers to pediatric child-abuse specialists.

This powerful book shows how a narrative based on empirically thin evidence became a theory with real social force, and how that theory stood at odds with the grim reality of sexual abuse. The Witch-Hunt Narrative is a magisterial account of the social dynamics that led to the denial of widespread human tragedy.